Barca moves to ward off midfielder Thiago Alcántara's many suitors
Thiago Alcántara was arguably the most impressive performer in the Euro U-21s
Barca signed Thiago to a contract extension with a $130M buyout clause
Thiago has incredible talent but one coach says he needs more humility
It was the perfect end for the perfect tournament, the moment that many said defined him. Thiago Alcántara saw his opportunity and took the free kick quickly, sending the ball 40 yards, beyond the goalkeeper and into the net. When the backspin on the ball was broken by the net, the score line became 2-0 to Spain and the European U-21 Championships had been secured. The Swiss goalkeeper was caught out a little off his line but the speed of thought and precision of execution still impressed; not least because the goal felt like the culmination of 10 days of wonderful soccer -- the proof that here stood a real revelation, a special talent.
As the tournament closed and discussions began over who the outstanding player had been, three names predominated. Not that of top scorer Adrián López, who won the official award, but Athletic Bilbao's Javi Martínez, Valencia's Juan Mata and Thiago Alcántara, the kid from the Barcelona academy. As World Cup winners with Spain's senior squad, Mata and Martínez did not completely surprise. Thiago did not entirely either -- he has been talked about for a while -- but he had arguably the greatest impact. He was the one leaving the note saying: look out for me. Everyone seemed to as well: the talk was of offers rolling in from half the continent.
The son of Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho, Thiago shone in Denmark with his vision and touch -- constantly controlling the ball with the sole of his boot, rolling it under his studs, fútbol sala style.
Quick footed, he was always looking for the incisive pass but virtually never looking where that pass was headed. Like Michael Laudrup -- a footballing Magic Johnson -- he preferred to throw the defender with a look one way, eyes darting sharply from right to left and back again before, advantage gained, delivering the pass the other.
"Congratulations to Spain," said Villarreal's Borja Valero after the final, "but the No. 19 is my weakness. What a player! I am a huge fan of Thiago Alcántara." Last season, Borja was among those players that Pep Guardiola thought about as an option for the middle of the Barcelona midfield. The man Guardiola is determined to sign for that position this season was equally impressed. As the ball speared its way beyond Yan Sommer, Cesc Fabregas tweeted: "Golazoooooo!"
And that's the thing. Not only did Thiago's goal serve as confirmation that Spain has a new generation ready to continue the success of la selección, it served as confirmation that Barcelona has too.
It also posed the inevitable question. Many had already asked why Barcelona pursued Cesc Fabregas with such determination when it has Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. Now they were asking: what do Barcelona need Cesc for when they have Thiago too? Why spend €40 million ($58M) on a player when you have a better one already there, who costs you nothing? It was even harder to understand why Barcelona might contemplate a sale for Thiago to finance Fabregas, as media reports had suggested.
The answer is simple: Barcelona didn't. Not exactly. Although the temptation to allow him to move -- so long as it was with a buyback option -- was there, Barcelona was more concerned by the talk of offers than encouraged by them.There had even been contact between Thiago's father and Real Madrid.
Instead, quite possibly "encouraged" by that, Barcelona sped up the offer of a contract renewal -- finally announced on Wednesday afternoon. Thiago's contract now runs until 2015 and his buyout clause has risen from €30 million ($43M) to €90 million ($130M).
Barcelona would only have even countenanced Thiago's departure on loan in order to get first division experience or with a buyback option. Although the idea of raising a significant transfer fee for him was seductive to some, the last thing it wanted was a situation like the one it is currently experiencing with Cesc -- in which it has to pay a huge amount of money to bring back a youth-team product and one that perfectly fits the identity and philosophy of the club. What it really wanted was to keep him at the Camp Nou and continue his apprenticeship. As Andoni Zubizarreta, Barcelona's director of sport, put it: "where would we find a player like this?"
Soon, another question was being asked: does this mean Cesc is not signing?Not at all. Renewing Thiago's contract had no bearing on the chase for Cesc.
Barcelona still wants the Arsenal midfielder. The reasoning, from which all else stems, boils down to a simple fact: right now Cesc Fabregas is a priority for Guardiola and right now Thiago is not. In fact, there is a fear that bringing him through and making him a regular immediately might prove counterproductive.
Barcelona has never publicly said it wanted to sell Thiago and Guardiola insisted that he wanted the midfielder to continue. Had he not, there is no doubt that Thiago would have gone. But there were doubts and, with money tight, some of those were quietly expressed -- helping fuel rumors in the media. Things filtered out from both sides, as so often happens during negotiations.
Meanwhile, the doubts were (and are) real; the U-21 coach Luis Milla's comment that Thiago had the talent to perform like Iniesta and Xavi but also needed their "humility" was a hint, while the coaching staff believe that, although he has a talent that sets him apart even from some of his illustrious teammates, he still loses the ball more often than he should.
Caution is urged too: it is not so long ago that Royston Drenthe was the European U-21 Championship's outstanding performer. Thiago needs time to fully grasp the principles of Barcelona's approach. The good news is that the coaching staff believe he will. They know they have a fantastically talented player on their hands.
But time is the key. "Why do Barcelona need Cesc when they have Iniesta and Xavi?" is a legitimate question. But Barcelona are conscious of the fact that last season its squad was short and that a key midfield injury might have derailed them; this season it will have to compete for six competitions. Then there's the generational shift, which needs to be handled well. Xavi Hernández is arguably the finest midfielder Spain has ever produced but he is also 31. He has had Achilles problems, too. Cesc is the man Barcelona see eventually replacing him. With Iniesta. And ultimately, if all goes well with his development, with Thiago. And, however good Thiago is, right now it is legitimate to ask: is he really better than Xavi, Iniesta, or even Cesc?
Marti Perarnau, the author of a wonderful, detailed recent book about the development of players at Barcelona's La Masía youth system, Senda de Campeones, explains the ideas, philosophy, methods and structure better than anyone. For Guardiola, Perarnau points out, it is cyclical. It is also fairly rigid: development follows a series of stages.
A glance at the ages of Barcelona's ball-playing midfielders reveals the pattern: Xavi is 31, Iniesta is 27 and Thiago is 20. 31, 27, 20. That's quite a leap. The missing step in the middle? 23 or 24. Cesc's age? 24. If that means Thiago having to wait a little longer, Guardiola believes, then so much the better. Haste does not necessarily help. Barcelona does not want to be having to fill three places at once: with staggered progress and staggered ages, the transition is -- at least in theory -- smooth; especially with players who have learned at the best pace.
Guardiola would rather Thiago gained some experience of the first team. That he joined the squad and developed slowly, ironing out his flaws bit by bit, returning to the B team periodically, than be thrown straight in. That stage is complete; the next stage is a cautious entry into the first team. Last season, for example, Thiago played 12 times in the league but started just six of those. He also played 11 times for Barcelona B. Now, contract renewed in the spring and again yesterday, he will officially form part of the first team squad, closing the doors to Barcelona B.
The problem is that while Guardiola preaches patience, Thiago naturally wants to play. His father, a famous player himself and a vocal presence, wants him to be playing too. That desire to take the next step also acted as leverage during negotiations. For Thiago and Mazinho six starts in 2010-2011 did not seem much; for Guardiola, it seemed right. He did not appreciate being hurried. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the two sides are working to different timetables and a certain degree of friction may still be inevitable, despite the satisfaction at the signing of this new deal.
Guardiola's desire to work cyclically may be too rigid, certainly for a player as talented as Thiago. It could be that it is only minutes that Thiago needs and that the sooner he gets in the team, the sooner he is playing regularly at its heart, the better. It could be that it proves better to give him the chance than to pay for Cesc. After all, Leo Messi only just turned 24 and has arguably been the best player in the world for three years or more; despite injuries, being thrown in early might have been good for him. Messi's wonderful display, as a surprise starter, against Real Madrid back in 2006 was a bold move from Frank Rijkaard that appears to have paid off handsomely.
It is certainly true that by signing Cesc, Barcelona would theoretically limit Thiago's opportunities -- it might even arrest his development, hence the temptation to seek those opportunities elsewhere. Thiago was recently forced to apologize after announcing that his dream was not necessarily to play soccer for Barcelona; it was simply to play soccer. Time may be on his side, but it is not always easy to see that. And because it is not easy to see, it is not easy to implement. Now with the threat of a departure out the way, it will be interesting to see how fast Thiago progresses and how fast he is allowed to progress. Will an exception be made? And if not, how will he react? Most importantly, it will be interesting to see how well he progresses. If there is speed, will it become haste or necessary urgency?
For Guardiola, there is living proof that he should not rush. Giovanni Dos Santos has had unremarkable spells at Spurs and Ipswich and last season played for Racing Santander. He was a Barcelona player until he departed unmissed and unappreciated, unable to meet expectations. That seems like an age ago, like people long since gave up on him, and yet he has only just turned 21 and he is just showing glimpses that he might be a great player after all. He made his debt at 17 and immediately carried the weight of hype and hopes, not least his own. Had he stayed and developed at a slower pace, learning at the Camp Nou rather than elsewhere, who knows, he might still be a Barcelona player -- and a useful one, too.
But it is Thiago's U-21 team mate Bojan Krikic that provides the clearest example. Bojan became the youngest league goal scorer in Barcelona's history when he scored against Villarreal in October 2007. He was 17 years and 51 days. Four years later, the rather unkind, arguably unjust sensation is that he has failed; that he is a lost talent, a missed opportunity. At 20, a year less than Thiago, he could be just coming through at Barcelona, completing his apprenticeship, the kid everyone is talking about for the coming season. Instead, he's leaving the Camp Nou, bound for Rome.
Thiago is not; Thiago is staying put. For Pep Guardiola that's good news.Not because Thiago will be able to play a key part this season, but that he will be able to play a key part next season and the season after and the season after that.